Touch is the baby’s gateway to learning about himself and the world. Parents provide many of the occasions for touch that researchers have shown play crucial roles in early development. These same occasions also feel important and nurturing to the parent, and set up a healthy feedback loop between baby and parent. Child’Space helps parents use touch to promote regulation, provide information, and facilitate coordination.
Setting the stage through improved regulation: From the earliest minutes after birth, parents want to hold and stroke their baby. Newborns who are held and moved gain weight on schedule. Sensitive caregiver touch reduces infant stress, enhances communication, and improves bone growth. Parent touch helps the baby modulate its emotions and physiology so that the baby learns and grows well.
Touching the baby also helps the parent’s own regulation. Close, affectionate contact releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes us want to take care of the other. Parents who are not so well regulated also touch their babies differently, as in depressed mothers who are more likely than non-depressed mothers to poke, tug, and overstimulate their babies. Child’Space teaches parents to work with their infant’s signals (such as sensing when the baby needs to pause), and such sensitivity leads to greater parenting confidence, more secure attachment, and reduced postpartum depression. When the parent responds sensitively to the baby’s signals, the baby learns that his communication works, and also learns how to regulate himself so that he can continue to take in more information about the world.
Providing information about the baby and the world: The parent awakens, carries, feeds, grooms, warms, soothes, and teaches the baby. Every encounter gives the baby proprioceptive information about the baby herself: her various parts, how they work, how they move against the parent’s body and relative to gravity. Touch-based encounters also give the baby information about the people, objects, landscapes, and events that make up her world. Daddy may be the one who sits holding the baby snug to his chest, then rocks back and forth until the baby laughs with delight; Mommy may be the one who dances from one foot to the other, singing, with the baby in arms. Through touch, a baby discovers food textures, spoons and other tools to use, solid or slippery or steep ground underfoot.
Child’Space teaches parents specific ways to touch that give their baby clear information about herself, such as by slowly squeezing and pressing joints, limbs, fingers and toes to bring the baby’s attention one by one to moveable body parts. Such dynamic mapping helps a baby release a rigid limb, or lift a hip that’s otherwise unmoving. Child’Space also shows a parent how to bring the baby into new relations with the environment, such as by gently thumping the baby’s feet to the floor so the baby feels the solidity and resistance of the floor, useful for figuring out how to push against it for rolling and crawling. A baby needs lots of information in order to learn coordinations such as crawling, walking or talking.
Facilitating new coordination: The parent facilitates his baby’s coordination whenever he simultaneously walks and talks carrying the baby, times the next spoonful-to-mouth with the baby’s watching, and does thousands more small, meaningful gestures to help his baby develop. Teaching parents that these small gestures are meaningful to their baby helps the parents feel more effective, and expands the baby’s coordination.
Key to Child’Space is fostering intentional movements that allow the baby to act in any changing situation. For example, Child’Space teaches parents how to do “tummy time” in a pleasurable way for their baby. Certainly many professionals advocate such belly-down experience in this era of back-sleeping; babies whose parents do not place them on their tummies take longer to discover how to raise the head, or push off the floor, and can also be at risk for problems such as a flat back to the head (which makes it harder to turn the head). Yet it’s not merely helpful floor time that Child’Space fosters, but rather learning how to move from one position to another and back again within such a context. This makes the Child’Space version of tummy time a delightful discovery time rather than a stress for the baby. Child’Space trains parents to help their baby figure out how, for example, to get from back to belly (and vice versa) including contributions of vision, the head, shoulders, hands, sternum, ribs, hips, knees, and feet. Child’Space supports the baby finding intermediate positions along the way such as side-lying, which offers temporary stability in the larger arc of turning, and from which he can explore reversing or increasing the arc (e.g., by leading with a little shoulder or head or foot movement). A baby may already roll well to one side but not even try the other side; the parent can put an attractive toy on the unfamiliar side, and then gently pat the opposite shoulder or hip to give the baby a hint toward the coordination. When a baby knows how to roll both ways, he can move well in any direction, and he has learned something useful for building further coordinations such as crawling. A baby who knows how to roll or crawl has another tool in the self-regulation kit, because this allows the baby to go after what he wants, and find a parent’s help when he needs it. Better self-regulation allows the baby to stay calm and attentive and thus to perceive more information, and the cycle continues.
Child’Space supports babies and parents. Child’Space provides parents with a confidence naturally resulting from tuning in to their baby’s signals, and answering with developmentally appropriate responses, which in turn enhances attachment. Child’Space guides parents through face-to-face interactions, proprioceptive touch, and movements that validate a baby’s current abilities and encourage gradual steps toward developmental milestones. For example, parents learn to tap gently along limbs, press joints, and squeeze muscles to bring the baby’s awareness to body parts vital for a skill such as rolling, crawling or walking. The baby feels more of herself, which prompts her to try more movements, by means of which she will learn the next of many things people can do. Through sensitive, developmental touch, Child’Space helps parents help their babies learn, and the relationship thrives.
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Carolyn Palmer, Ph.D., is a Developmental Psychologist at Vassar College, a Child’Space Practitioner and a Feldenkrais Method® movement teacher. Dr. Palmer conducts research on lifespan action development and embodied learning and teaching practices.